Republic Bank, Independence Square, Port-of-Spain.

Anna-Lisa Paul

The Banking Insurance & General Workers Union (BIGWU) has advised the 3,060 employees of Republic Bank Limited (RBL) to resist any and all attempts by management to alter their terms and conditions of work in the absence of sanctioned negotiations as it relates to the vaccination of persons.

BIGWU’s Second Vice President, Jason Brown has accused RBL of disregarding good faith negotiations and attempting to unilaterally change existing terms and conditions which has led to increased levels of discontentment, anxiety, fear and prejudice among the staff.

On August 9, RBL initially wrote to BIGWU signalling its intention to implement a vaccination policy for workers – following which the union responded two days later and cautioned RBL about, “What their management prerogative allows them to do and what it disallows in terms of the introduction of new terms and conditions of work.”

However, in the midst of ongoing discussions with the union and following a meeting on August 17 during which BIGWU requested further information, RBL, in a shocking move, advised employees on August 18 of the proposed move to have the entire staff physically return to work by September 1 and the criteria outlined for both vaccinated and unvaccinated staff.

This included compelling people who were not vaccinated to subject themselves to PCR testing at a cost of $2,400 per month, in order to enter the bank’s premises.

Responding to RBL on August 18, Brown warned, “Institutionalised discrimination against workers is wholeheartedly rejected by the union.”

In that letter, he advised, “that a return to the workplace should not be vaccine dependent only, but rather on the basis that the actual workplace can safely accommodate the necessary distancing between persons as both vaccinated and unvaccinated may contract and spread the virus to those with and without the vaccine.”

He insisted, “The introduction of a mandatory PCR test is a new condition of work and that means it has to be discussed and agreed with the union because we have a Collective Agreement.”

Continuing that such decisions are “highly illegal” and was something that “the union will be resisting in the strongest way possible,” Brown referred to additional threats of disciplinary action and the removal of discretionary paid sick leave which he said all add to the prejudice contemplated against the unvaccinated, while vaccinated persons may receive incentives.

Despite this, Brown said BIGWU is, “willing to support any reasonable compromises that do not create additional hardship and stress in the workplace.”

In response, RBL’s CEO Nigel Baptiste said approximately 51 per cent of the staff “have registered on our portal as having received one or both doses” of the vaccine.

Asked if RBL would be moving to implement any policy restricting or limiting unvaccinated members of the public or people who have only had one dose of the vaccine, from conducting in-person transactions, Baptiste said, “Those measures have been in place from inception of the pandemic ranging from the installation of various pieces of equipment, reduction in the opening hours of the branches, changes to the range of services offered to reduce transaction time, reduction in foot traffic in the banking halls, and temperature checks plus sanitizing. In addition, we have also encouraged all customers to use our full suite of digital offerings to minimize the need for in-person banking.”

He said RBL was not considering the implementation of a vaccination policy for members of the public in this regard.

On the topic of mandatory PCR tests for unvaccinated employees, Baptiste said, “The bank’s implementation of this part of our policy has been phased and we have indicated that for the first month, we will share the cost of each PCR test with the staff member. This allows anyone wishing to avoid this cost the time to obtain their vaccine. After this, the staff member will be responsible for the full cost.”

In response to questions about how RBL’s service providers had reacted to this latest policy, he stated, “Our conversations with most of the key service providers indicated that no major issue was envisaged.”

He added, “The Bank continues to engage with BIGWU and hopes that it will join the Bank in encouraging unvaccinated staff to become vaccinated. This is very important for their own well being, the well being of their colleagues and their family and for the recovery of the economy.”

He added: “Our staff have historically shown themselves to be extremely responsible members of society and we have no reason to doubt that that remains the case.”

“I am confident that we all share a common objective and that is, securing a positive outcome from this pandemic. The bank is approaching this with a very positive mindset with a focus on education and safety. It would be irresponsible to speculate over what might happen in the long term.”